Fiji Labour Party’s constitutional battle for cabinet seats will now go back to the Supreme Court for determination to resolve an impasse over allocation of portfolios.
Talks between Labour Leader Mahendra Chaudhry and Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase have stalled on the issue of the number of cabinet portfolios FLP is entitled to and the nature of these portfolios. The two parties have agreed to refer the matter back to the Supreme Court.
Fiji therefore continues to have an unconstitutional government which marginalises at least 50% of its population including an entire ethnic community, the Fiji Indians.
Meanwhile, a suggestion by Mr. Chaudhry for a government of national unity (GNU) to be set up as the best way forward for Fiji at this critical stage in its development, has been categorically rejected by Qarase as not being a directive of the Supreme Court.
This is despite the assurance by Mr. Chaudhry as well as independent legal opinion that the Supreme Court ruling does in fact accommodate a GNU. Mr. Chaudhry’s suggestion was that the GNU operate under a social charter agreed to by all parliamentary parties.
Following the Supreme Court ruling in late July, Prime Minister Qarase wrote to Mr. Chaudhry inviting the Fiji Labour Party to join his cabinet. He allocated 14 “cabinet” positions to the FLP which were created by splitting existing portfolios.
Mr. Chaudhry accepted the invitation but argued that the FLP which constitutes 28 of the 71 seats in the House of Representatives compared to SDL’s (Mr. Qarase’s party) 34, was entitled to 17 cabinet portfolios.
Mr. Chaudhry is also unhappy with other aspects of the PM’s offer which he regards as tokenism, unconstitutional, and contrary to the spirit and intent of Section 99 of the constitution which makes a multiparty cabinet mandatory. They are:
The PM’s decision for a bloated cabinet of 36 (out of 71 members in the House of Reps) to accommodate FLP’s 14. Under the Constitution, FLP is the only party, other than SDL, entitled to be in cabinet. The PM’s decision to include other parties not entitled (in order to keep his majority intact) means that their allocation must come out of the SDL’s share of cabinet positions. FLP should not be deprived of its entitlement to accommodate others.
A bloated cabinet of 36 puts a heavy, unwarranted strain on taxpayers. It is also contrary to the requirements of good governance.
Allocation of portfolios
The FLP has not been given a single full substantive portfolio by the Prime Minister. Instead, he has dipped into existing ministries to create portfolios to accommodate the FLP. These are junior positions with token staff and token budget. The FLP has rightly condemned the PM’s gesture as tokenism and in breach of the intent and spirit of the constitution.
For instance, of the 14 ministries assigned to Labour, 10 have permanent staff establishment of less than 15 – of which three have six, two have only 33 and one ministry has only one staff.
The budget allocation to the FLP controlled ministries is a mere 2% of the 2003 Budget— a true manifestation of the insignificance of the FLP portfolios. Of this 2%, half is for the prisons department and payment of war pensions to veterans.
Following delayed negotiations on the issue, the PM went ahead and appointed 14 FLP members to his cabinet, assigning them portfolios he had thus far created. Senior FLP members including Mr. Chaudhry are not on the list.
On 1 September, the 14 FLP MPs wrote back to the Prime Minister expressing surprise that he ignored proper protocol, that is going through the Party leader, in making unilateral appointments. They also expressed surprise at being appointed to these Cabinet positions without being consulted on the matter.
They advised the Prime Minister to adhere to protocol in future and informed that any decision on which Labour MPs will take up cabinet positions will come from the Party leader.
This is where the matter currently stands. FLP is now in the process of filing action in the Supreme Court to determine areas o contention.
Following the post-coup general elections of August 2001, the FLP filed a law suit in the High Court challenging the Prime Minister’s decision not to invite Labour members into his cabinet, under the power sharing provisions of Section 99 of the Constitution.
In consideration of the national importance of the law suit, the High Court decided to save time and referred the matter directly to the Fiji Court of Appeal. In a ruling delivered in February 2002, the Appeals court ruled that Section 99 was mandatory and that the Prime Minister had acted unlawfully in excluding the FLP from his cabinet.
Mr. Qarase decided to exercise his right of appeal and referred the ruling to the Supreme Court. In a long delaying process. the Supreme Court was not constituted until June this year to hear the case. It upheld the Appeals Court ruling in a judgment delivered in late July.
In refusing to accept Mr. Qarase’s offer of token ministerial portfolios, Mr. Chaudhry is of the view that Fiji can only move forward as a nation under a banner of genuine reconciliation and multiracialism. Not through racially exclusive policies or hollow gestures that the Prime Minister is resorting to. In prescribing power sharing for Fiji’s multi-ethnic society, the Constitution envisages the pooling of talents, skills and resources for the best governance of the nation.